Fiction

2015

‘And the Burned Moths Remain’ on Tor.com. Long ago Jingfei sold the world of her birth, Tiansong, to the Hegemony. Kept as a political prisoner, she bides her eternal sentence in the company of her countless bodies. An envoy arrives with an offer: a bargain to undo history and redeem Jingfei’s name. 6,100 words.

2014

Scale-Bright, a novella from Immersion Press. Shortlisted for the British SF Association Award.

‘Chrysalises’ in Dangerous Games, edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris Books).

‘The Governess and We’ in Steampunk World, edited by Sarah Hans (Alliteration Ink).

Continue reading

That’s Bal-Bal-Kun to *you*

Yui Kusanagi, is the daughter of a Shinto shrine. She discovers a mysterious sword, which transports her to a different world where she meets the Greek god Zeus. He invites her to attend a school in a separate world that he created. Zeus intends to teach the meaning of love to the various young divine beings who also attend the school, in an attempt to reverse the weakening bond between humans and the gods.

Kamigami no Asobi is an absurd manga and demands an image dump. I’m pretty positive it’s a piss-take, honestly. The experience of reading it felt like pouring dead insects down my skin.

L to R: Hades, Apollo, Loki, Baldr, Thoth, and Anubis.

Bal-Bal-Kun. Also known as Bella Swan, on account of falling over constantly.

‘From the Greek side, they also sent my uncle, Hades and Dionysus, also called Dee-Dee.’

‘This is a unicorn. A fierce, extremely self-respecting unicorn.’

Yep, definitely a piss-take.

eyeliners

Eyeliner basics: gel, pencil, liquid, smudge, smear, oh god I’m a panda

Eyeliner’s great. To some people mascara is the most crucial part of a look, but I personally go for eyeliner – it can do a whole lot to change how you look and emphasize your eyes, and if I’m in a rush eyeliner remains something I never skip (eyeshadow, sure; I even go without foundation sometimes). I love eyeliner. Call me an eyeliner enthusiast. If you wear nothing else on your face, eyeliner – along with lipstick – can make the biggest difference.

I also don’t subscribe to the idea that black eyeliner is too harsh for daytime looks, and I’d say most people around here agree with me: black eyeliner is the norm here, of various intensity, fanciness and thickness. While I wouldn’t draw my liner on an inch thick, I find brown just too subtle to properly emphasize eyes, though I imagine dark brown works nicely if you’re doing a ‘no makeup’ look.

What was intimidating and confusing when I started getting into makeup was, which kind of eyeliner? There are really quite a lot of types. My initial eyeliner adventures involved a lot of broken retractable pencils of terrible quality that tugged and pulled at my eyelids while dispensing muddy, grayish pigment instead of the advertised black. It was like trying to line my eyes with charcoal sticks. Otherwise it was liquid eyeliners with soft brush tips that smeared literally everywhere and got stuck in my eyelashes. Very attractive.

So let’s see if I can make eyeliner less intimidating and money-wasting for everyone else!

Finish? Type? Formula?

Liquid eyeliner is for my money the hardest sort to handle: you need a steady hand, a decent brush tip, and a lot of practice. But it’s also the most pigmented and most obviously black, and some liquid liners come with a shiny finish, giving you a ‘lacquered’ look. I prefer liquid liners with a firm tip rather than a soft brush – they let you best control the line’s direction and thickness while softer brushes are prone to smear stuff all over. One downside of liquid eyeliner pens is that they can dry out too soon, though I hear that storing it tip-down can help with that. Good liquid eyeliner should not flake off, smudge, or migrate to your under eye. I generally find them much longer-lasting than pencil or gel and, unless your eyelids are supremely oily, you usually don’t need a primer under a liquid liner.

I’ve sampled a lot, from the devilishly difficult (MAC Liquid Last – it has the rough consistency of tar and may be the most difficult formula on Earth to use, but hoo boy it’ll stay on all day) to the forgiving and easy. Even the most forgiving of liquid liners is still harder to use, though, than pencil or gel. Try: Clio Waterproof Pen Liner (not the Brush Liner), Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eye Liner, Kanebo KATE Super Sharp Liner.

eyeliners

Gel eyeliner: these usually come in a pot and needs a brush to apply. The extra fuss of needing a separate brush isn’t my favorite part about using gel liners (since it’s one more brush to clean), but gel liners are massively more forgiving than liquid. It’s also pretty useful as an eyeshadow base and smudging for smoky looks.

I slag off Clinique skincare but some of their makeup is pretty solid, and the Brush-On Cream Liner is one of them. Actually, it’s much better than the MAC Fluidline. Like a whole lot better, in every way, for a smaller price tag. MAC is $150.00/oz, Clinique is around $97.00/oz. Each pot of Fluidline gives you 0.1 oz of product; the Clinique gives you 0.17 oz of product. Usually having more product per purchase isn’t necessarily the best – price concerns aside – because gel liner in pots can dry out. My Fluidline did, despite storing it upside down, and while in theory you could revive the stuff with eye drops or a trip in the microwave, I’m not a big fan of either idea in practice.

cliniquepot

The Clinique liner, though, is famous for never drying out – I hear some people have kept theirs for three years plus and it’s still not dried up (whether it’s advisable to use a gel liner three years going on four is another concern entirely). Mine has retained its creamy consistency, pigmentation, and ease of application after about fourteen months. Good going. More importantly, if you want your eyeliner to be really black-black the Clinique is just more pigmented. It dries, well, true black whereas the MAC Fluidline in Blacktrack gets a bit gray. There are gel liners blacker than the Clinique, but its blackness gets pretty close to liquid liner. Recommended. The only pro MAC Fluidline has going for it is that it comes in a much bigger range of finishes and shades.

Otherwise, try these very cheap, nice options: Essence Gel Eyeliner, Kanebo KATE Gel Eye Liner, Zoeva Cream Eyeliner.

Pencil liners are the most foolproof format. It’s also my least favorite, mainly because I have never met a pencil liner that didn’t slide off my eyelids within the hour. Like, what even. I also have a hate-hate relationship with retractable pencil liners, since pretty much every single one I’ve used snaps off at the drop of a hat, isn’t creamy enough to apply without tugging, and doesn’t dispense enough pigmentation in one stroke, so if I must use a pencil it’s going to be a wooden one that needs sharpening. Bonus: compared ounce to ounce, retractable pencil liners are much more expensive – even taking into account that you’ll sharpen some product away on the wooden one.

I don’t really have a recommendation for pencil eyeliners. Sorry. That’s how badly I get along with them – I only use colorful pencil liners as part of a look, but black pencil liners to do my upper lashline are a no-no.

Primer. There’s a reason there’s a sample of the NARS Smudge Proof Eyeshadow Base in the picture, and not just because I mistook it for a deluxe sample of a NARS pencil liner (okay, it’s because I mistook it for that). I find that if you have even mildly oily eyelids (or hooded ones), you’re going to need some primer on to avoid the not-really-coveted panda look when wearing gel or pencil liner (if your eyelids are very oily, you’ll probably want a primer even for liquid liners). NARS Smudge Proof is my favorite, but it’s also pretty pricey and your eyelids may just not be as oily as mine, so it’s worth trying NYX HD Eye Shadow Base or Zoeva Eyeshadow Fix Matte. Don’t bother with MAC Prep & Prime, it’s just bad.

Tl;dr: Pencil eyeliners are the most beginner-friendly and forgiving to those whose hands aren’t the steadiest. Liquid is the trickiest, least forgiving, but generally the longest-lasting and most pigmented. Gel eyeliners are a nice middle ground and double as eyeshadow base.

Skincare for beginners: the basics

A few friends were asking Twitter for skincare recommendations the other day. Me being me, I thought hey, sounds like a great excuse to put together a beginner’s guide to skincare. Disclaimer: I’m not a dermatologist and I work on the assumption that most people have oily/combination or dry skin, but everyone’s skin is individual. What works for me might break you out in giant cystic messes; what breaks me out might turn your skin into literal gold.

Morning routine:

  1. Wash with water.
  2. Toner.
  3. Light moisturizer.
  4. Sunscreen.

Evening:

  1. Remove makeup or sunscreen.
  2. Cleanser.
  3. Toner (optional).
  4. Light moisturizer.
  5. Heavy night cream.

Some general tips.

  • Over-cleansing. A lot of people with oily skin try to compensate for it by cleansing too often, which results in dehydrated skin that produces even more sebum! If your foaming cleanser results in your skin feeling ‘squeaky clean’, that’s a sign it’s drying you out.
  • Over-exfoliating. Similar to over-cleansing,you can dry out your skin this way which results in it producing more oil, thus defeating the purpose. I don’t, personally, find physical exfoliants (microbeads, apricot scrubs, whatever) very effective, but your mileage and all that. Depending on how harsh the exfoliant is, two-three times a week more than suffice. You mightn’t want to do it every day.
  • Sunscreen. Unless you live in underground, put that stuff on, for real, every day. Your motivation? Prevention of early signs of age and prevention of, well, skin cancer.
  • Under-moisturizing. Same drill: if you have oily skin, it may be due to your skin being dehydrated and over-producing sebum to compensate. The solution is to moisturize more, not less. Don’t be scared of oil-based skincare.
  • Pore tightening. Pretty much nothing will shrink the size of your pores, sorry. (I sure have tried!) If your pores are large due to acne, AHA/BHA treatments can unclog your pores and they’ll appear smaller. Otherwise, if pores bother you, use a silicone primer to fill/blur them.

Cleansers: The main factor is the pH value, ideally no higher than 5.5. If it doesn’t come labeled, look it up online. Have a look at this primer on Why the pH of your Cleanser Matters. Otherwise, I’d recommend oil-based or cream cleansers for those with dry skin, foaming cleansers for oily/combination (many foaming cleansers score way too high on the pH strip, but not all!). Try: Hada Labo Tamagohada, Cetaphil, Clinique Liquid Facial Soap.

Don’t use bar soap, seriously.

Treatments: If you have specific skin concerns like acne, hyperpigmentation, and so on, I won’t be covering treatments for those since the things that really work on them tend to be specialized: you need chemical exfoliants and retinoids, and those can be pretty intimidating to sort through.

One exception? Clay masks. Clay masks are great at dealing with breakouts in my experience, and not only are they much less scary than active treatments, they are cheaper and more widely available. Some picks: Queen Helene’s Mint Julep Masque, Boots Botanics Shine Away Ionic Clay Mask, Origins Active Charcoal Mask. Put on, let dry for 10-20 minutes, wash off before proceeding with cleansing as usual. Do this whenever you’ve got a breakout and it’s very likely to help calm things down. Note that clay masks will dry your face out, so moisturize well afterward!

Toners: I don’t think anyone agrees on whether toners are necessary. Your average run-of-the-mill toner doesn’t do much other than mild cleansing. My take on it is that toners are, by and large, optional. It can remove stuff your cleanser didn’t get rid off. I like toners for mornings, when I don’t user a cleanser but want something quick and refreshing. I’ve used many, many toners from drugstore to the highest end (thanks, samples) and found them all to be equally indifferent. It’s down to finding out what you are sensitive/allergic to, and avoiding toners with those: alcohol is present in many toners. It’s Paula Begoun’s pet hate. Personally I’m fine with alcohol, but some people evidently aren’t. You can also use plain witch hazel or rosewater for toner. Otherwise, I like Etude House Wonderpore and Dr. Wu Intensive Renewal Toner with Mandelic Acid, both of which are pH-balancing.

Moisturizers: This isn’t an official classification, but I personally separate moisturizing products into three kinds. (Technically we are supposed to think of emollients, humectants and occlusives, but it’s a rabbit hole and skincare salespeople will probably not really… understand if you walk up to them asking for an occlusive.)

  1. Day moisturizer.
  2. Night moisturizer.
  3. Occlusive.

Day moisturizers are light gels or watery lotions. It should go under your makeup or sunscreen without causing your foundation to slide off or leaving you a greasy mess. Try: Hada Labo Gokujyun Milk, Sulwhasoo Essential Balancing Water. (I’ve used Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Gel. It sat on top of my skin without absorbing, pilled up, and didn’t hydrate any better than a spray of water. Most Clinique skincare is troublingly mediocre, there’s much better stuff for much cheaper.)

Night moisturizers are thicker creams, richer, and oilier. Try: Nivea Cream, Sisley Ecological Compound.

Occlusives. These lock in the hydration from your prior skincare steps. Vaseline serves very well: smear it on top of your moisturizer before you go to bed. Your skin doesn’t like Vaseline? There’s medical-grade lanolin or Aquaphor. Otherwise, try Laneige Water Sleeping Pack EX or Too Cool for School Pumpkin Sleeping Pack.

Mineral oil, another ingredient about which there’s much scare-mongering, is present in all kinds of skincare products – cleansing oil, cleansing balm, night moisturizers – but it’s noncomedogenic and less likely to cause issues than coconut, olive or argan oil. Skin and Tonics offers a better explanation.

There’s all kinds of trash talk about mineral oil floating around, but the truth is, mineral oil is a safe, fantastic skin care ingredient, and there’s plenty of scientific evidence to support this. Mineral oil is actually an amazing cleansing ingredient, especially for those who are prone to blackheads. Mineral oil molecules are too large to enter pores, so it’s noncomedogenic, and massaging into the skin as a cleansing agent on a daily basis actually helps dislodge stubborn blackheads. Additionally, it provides emollient moisturizing benefits, even when used as a wash-off product. I’m a fan!

If you’re interested in reading more about the efficacy of mineral oil, check out this spectacularly detailed study from the International Journal of Cosmetic Science: A Review on the Extensive Skin Benefits of Mineral Oil (Rawlings, A. V. and Lombard, K. J.)

Yep. So while you do get shortchanged buying high-end products that include mineral oil (it’s a cheaper oil), it’s probably not going to give you literal face tumors or something. It’s occlusive and great for dry skin.

If you have dehydrated skin and/or winter is harsh and windy where you are (like, say, Hong Kong) I do recommend layering at least two kinds of moisturizers at night, with some minutes between them to wait for one to dry before you add another.

Sunscreen: The short version? Don’t bother with western sunscreens.

The long version? I’ve tried a lot of western sunscreens and found them to be mediocre to outright bad: greasy, messy, low SPF, lacking in broad-spectrum protection. Yes, even Paula’s Choice was like that for me. Alpha-H Daily Essential Moisturiser SPF30 is terrible, thick, and leaves my face an oily mess.

Shiseido sunscreens (including their sub-brands, like Anessa) are categorically good. So’s Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence and Hada Labo UV Creamy Gel. My favorite right now is The Face Shop Sebum Control Moisture Sun SPF 40. If Asian sunscreens aren’t easily accessible to you, it’s worth getting it online (they are pretty gentle to the wallet).

Whew, that got longer than I thought. I’ll probably cover active treatments some other time, plus oil cleansing, which IMO is really great, effective, gentle and friendly to skin.

Shingeki no Budget: Kuinaki Sentaku

I’m not the only one who feels the OVA looks cheap, am I? There’s something, I don’t know, cheap about it – and it’s entirely inexplicable considering the franchise has presumably generated enough money to fuel cinematic-level budget for the next fifty seasons or so. (Rough estimate; may not be accurate.)

It may be what feels like a reused frame of the notorious ‘cleaning Levi’ meme. It may be the reused opening and ending themes (I’ll be fair that ‘Jiyuu no Tsubasa’ is supposed to be Levi’s theme anyway, but) with nothing modified or new. It may also be that everything’s brown.

Let’s get this out of the way: why is it that the underground city not the preferred residence of the richest and most powerful? As far as I recall, at least in the anime we never see the eoten titans breaking through the ground, their damage seems to be purely horizontal. By all logic, the poorest and most oppressed should be stuck behind Wall Maria whereas the nobles or whatever should be living down below. Secondly, where do they get the power to fully illuminate the giant underground city 24/7? How is this place sustained? Was this stuff just made up for the prequel manga and OVA and the author didn’t really… think it through? (I’m aware the answer may just be found in the manga chapters taking place after the anime’s first season ends, but still.) Why are the buildings so high that 3D maneuver gear is feasible down there? Was this originally conceived as a bunker…?

Also, I know they have vitamin D deficiency but why is it their legs that go bad specifically? Is that a thing? God, whatever.

I’ve looked up credits for the Kuinaki Sentaku manga and while it lists Isayama as an author, it’s hard to say how much he contributes. The actual characterization and pacing certainly don’t feel all that much like the main series proper, though it might just be that I don’t find the idea of exploring Levi’s past all that compelling. We’ve got a cipher in Farlan and genki girl Isabel as a sort of Eren stand-in (in the sense of a young, brash newcomer) who immediately starts calling Levi her aniki. And… uh… hmm. There’s some… shady stuff afoot? Probably. I can’t even tell what exactly Levi and Farlan do for a living, stealing from the corrupt merchants and giving to the poor? Eh. The guy in the carriage up there is making Levi a deal, and then Erwin makes a counter-deal, I suppose.

There’s just not much to say really, is there. I guess if you find Levi and Erwin exceptionally compelling there’d be something here for you, but for me the OVA is mostly functional and watching it passes the time in a perfunctory sort of way. Like, hey, there’s a new piece of Attack on Titan media out, so let’s watch it for completion’s sake while waiting for the second season. Who knows, the next installment of the OVA might be better.

Recent reads: Swamplandia!, All You Need is Kill, Alcestis

Swamplandia! makes me want to tag on two extra rows of !!!! for its trouble. It’s got what I like to call gravitational prose, which I’m all for, and the fictional book The Spiritualist’s Telegraph within the book is… okay, the fictional book-within-the-book is more interesting than the actual events of Swamplandia!

Ossie said a spirit’s voice was as fine as a needle, tattooing her insides with luminous words. I’d seen a picture of this in The Spiritist’s Telegraph. A young Spiritist levitated a full foot above her bedsprings. A ghost was curled like a blue snail inside her chest, and it was so tiny! It burned through the lace of her old-fashioned dress like a second heart. A musical staff wound in a thorny crown around the Spiritist’s forehead, so that notes ran down her cheeks in a loose mask of song. Her eyelids were blacked out—and I saw this again and again in nightmares about my sister. Her eyelids had the high polish of acorns. But her ears: that was the truly scary part. Great fantails of indigo and violet lights spiraled into her earlobes in an ethereal funnel—what the book called the Inverted Borealis. The caption read: “A ghost sings its way deeply inside the Spiritist.”

See.

Meantime the actual narrative reality of the novel plays with being maybe-maybe-not magic realist, though it’s fairly obvious from the start that there’s nothing supernatural at play, not really – although what was up with the ridiculous series of coincidences around Kiwi? I kept expecting it to be some sort of setup, but there’s no payoff; he’s a recipient of incredible fortune, fame, and swoops in at the end to rescue his sisters… and that is it. The rape doesn’t bother me, in and of itself, but the huge gulf between Kiwi’s and Ava’s arcs highlight that a girl alone will always be at the mercy of sexual threat but a boy never. There’s something flattening about much of it and, despite the book’s sheer page count, I don’t think Ava ever comes into her own – even Ossie feels more substantial, somehow.

Also Disney World is evil incarnate, apparently.

A brilliant sun traced crisp shadows on the ground. The air was so clean you could have gotten a clear sniper shot from kilometers away. Above the field, the 17th Company’s flag snapped in a moist southerly breeze blowing off the Pacific.

The sea air held a scent that snaked its way down your nose and tickled your tongue on its way to your throat. Rita knitted her brow. It wasn’t the stench of a Mimic. More like the slightly fishy fragrance you got from those bowls of nuoc mam sauce.

All You Need is Kill is a light read, but absolutely fun. Some translations from Japanese prose to English fare very badly, but this isn’t one of them. It moves along competently and speedily – it’s a slight book, but books really don’t have to be the size of The Goldfinch. Smooth military SF that’s both restrained and over-the-top at once, with just the slightest touch of geopolitical slyness. Think of it as a counterpoint to Pacific Rim.

(I haven’t watched the movie.)

The head maid led us bleary eyed to the hearth, stepping over slaves sleeping in the halls. We stumbled down the stairs and past our father’s empty throne. In the kitchens the head maid boiled water so Hippothoe could breathe the steam and rubbed cut garlic under her nose as she gasped and coughed. The air grew thick and my shift clung to my body, clammy with steam and fear. The head maid and I prayed to Apollo, running through the chant we said so often that I worried the god would tire of our entreaties. I believed then that he listened to me when I prayed. I imagined him stealing silently among us, reaching out to touch Hippothoe’s chest with one golden-glowing hand, calming her, fixing her. I held my breath when Hippothoe choked and let it out only when her wheezing smoothed and slowed.

Alcestis is fabulous. It reminds me a lot of Nicola Griffith’s Hild in that it dedicates a lot of its attention to the domestic, to women’s work, and secondly it treats bisexuality as the norm in mythical Greek. More overtly fantastic than Hild (this takes place in a retelling where the underworld is real and so are Olympians), Alcestis is afforded less ability to affect her own fate than Hild, but there’s a similarity in tone and content that makes me suspect readers who liked one will probably like the other. The pacing gets somewhat unsteady toward the end, but taken as a whole this is a pretty fantastic book. Recommended, easily.

Reading log, late October

cw_97_700‘Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)’ by Rahul Kanakia (Clarkesworld, 2014). We’re all going to misremember the title of this one, I expect (sorry Rahul! it is long), but not the story itself. It’s clever and charming, and a little sad. It also reminds me of Allison Burnett’s The House Beautiful, for very obvious reasons.

‘Make No Promises’ by Rachel Halpern (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2014). This is one of those stories that’s epic in scope but also very quiet – in a good way. Prescience and the trouble of prophecies, and sisterhood.

‘Here Be Monsters’ by Carrie Patel (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2014). On sea and monstrosity, human-shaped and not. I was surprised to discover the first-person narrator is male! I’m not sure why, but I assumed it was a woman.

Conversely, a child’s hurts exist in a world untouchable by adults. There is no vocabulary for things like the threat of losing a best friend when you are not quite eleven. There is only swinging on the old tire your father hung from the oak in the backyard, twirling round and round, while your little brother tries to push you without getting knocked over, tries to comfort you in the silent animal language you share.

‘Testimony’ by Jennifer Mason-Black (Fireside, 2014). Oh, look at that. This is why I fell in love with Jennifer’s writing, back in 2012. There’s an effortlessness to it and this power of observation – just look at this narration of childhood.

‘Nine Dishes on the Cusp of Love’ by Fran Wilde (Daily SF, 2014). Sensual and delicious (also literally; much food description!).

The things that we do: on mistakes, on apologies

In a way, I have always been waiting to write this post.

Perhaps this is belated. Probably it is – but I wanted to gather my thoughts, collect myself; I wouldn’t say anything in haste.

One thing I’ve learned is that if you believe the world speaks only a language of force, then that syntax is all you will negotiate the world with. And it warps, thoroughly, how you think.

But I want, at least, some measure of a chance to explain myself. I’m not owed this chance. You aren’t obliged to read beyond the line. You don’t have to, at all. But please know that, if I’ve hurt you, I’m sorry.

Continue reading